"The magnolias, as wonderful as they are, compromise the way we see the Rotunda," says one UVA architectural historian.
Magnolias crowd the Rotunda. But should they be removed?
Photo by Dave McNair
As UVA gears up to begin a $4.7 million roof replacement project for the Rotunda, part of a planned $50 million restoration of Thomas Jefferson's famous centerpiece on the Lawn, a major visual transformation of the UNESCO World Heritage site (along with Monticello, one of only four in the country) could take place before the first piece of old sheet metal is removed.
According to a statement by University architect David Neuman, the six 100-year-old magnolias in the two courtyards that flank the Rotunda need to be removed, both because they have become a danger to the structure and because of the need to erect scaffolding for the roof work. What's more, according to UVA'a leading Lawn historian, the giant magnolias, which have grown to the roof line and crowd the Rotunda's curved walls, would mostly likely displease the structure's original architect, who preferred that his major buildings "stand up and stand out" against the horizon.
However, according to over 3,000 people who signed an online petition opposing the removal of the trees, they should stay up and stay put.
As one petitioner put it, "I don't want to stand idly by as they trample over common sense and due decency in the name of sycophantic adherence to the plans of a man who's been dead for almost two hundred years."
As a result, UVA has done some backpedaling. A week ago, President Teresa A. Sullivan fired off an email to students, who initiated the petition, assuring them that no final decision has been made on the fate of the trees, and that one wouldn't be made until the beginning of the year after further study.
Still, UVA Architectural History department chair Richard Guy Wilson, whose most recent book is about Thomas Jefferson's design of his University, says the decision is clear.
"I am in many ways a tree-hugger and don't like to see them cut down," says Wilson, "but they do mar his concept of how the Rotunda should be seen."
Wilson contends that Jefferson liked his buildings, especially the important ones, to be clearly seen on the horizon. "With plenty of sky behind them, to stand up and stand out," says Wilson, noting that Monticello, the State Capitol, and Poplar Forest all "stand up" and are not overly encumbered by trees.
Wilson says the Rotunda magnolias were planted sometime after the reconstruction of the building after the 1895 fire that destroyed most of Jefferson's original structure, probably around 1920.
"The magnolias, as wonderful as they are, compromise the way we see the Rotunda," says Wilson.
Indeed, a reporter noticed that three of the big magnolias are essentially growing up the side of the building, their branches reaching out to touch the windows. Standing on the north and south side of the terrace, the width of the trees crowds the view of the building.
Also, as Wilson points out, the trees are growing in the courtyards created by architect Stanford White.
"Magnolias, while a wonderful tree," observes Wilson, "are not that inviting to sit under."
Ironically, of course, while the University insists on remaining loyal to Jefferson's intentions when it comes to the Lawn, the exterior of the Rotunda as it exists today is mostly the work of White, while the interior is the result of a 1974-76 remodeling by architecture firm Ballou and Justice that gutted White's interior. As UVA historic preservation planner Brian Hogg told the alumni magazine a few years ago, "The only thing that’s really left of Jefferson is the brick." For instance, the design scheme of the replacement roof will mimic White's design, not Jefferson's original.
According to Neuman's office, the roof work will begin in March 2012 and won't be finished until May 2013. As for the the magnolias, odds are the decision will be to remove them, as they have outgrown the courtyards where they were planted and mar the full view of the Rotunda, but it won't be without some grumbling.